Peoria Journal Star

May 4, 2006

Ethics bill clears House by 4 votes
LaHood counters Democrats' criticism, calling it 'tough reforms'

By Dori Meinert
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a vote divided largely along party lines, the House approved a bill Wednesday aimed at addressing the lobbying scandals that have engulfed the Republican-led Congress in recent months.

Democrats and numerous congressional watchdog groups called the measure a "sham reform" that won't fool voters in November, while Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, and other Republicans said it offers "tough reforms."

In a 217 to 213 vote, the House passed a measure that would require more frequent reporting of lobbying activities and require earmarks and their sponsors to be formally disclosed in appropriations bills. It also makes it easier to challenge earmarks - special projects designated by lawmakers for funding - if they aren't disclosed.

In addition, the bill allows House members to accept privately funded travel only with preapproval of two-thirds of the House ethics committee. The committee has until June 15 to come up with permanent rules for travel.

The bill also would strip pension benefits from lawmakers convicted of a public corruption felony. That provision was in direct response to the conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., for taking bribes for earmarks.

The House passage sends the bill to negotiations with the Senate, which has passed a bill that goes further than the House bill. The Senate measure would ban gifts and meals from lobbyists and would increase the length of time before a retiring lawmaker can lobby Congress from one year to two.

Earlier this year, LaHood urged House Republican leaders to move quickly to address the scandals or risk losing their party's majority in the November elections. On Wednesday, he voted for the House bill.

"I believe it offers very tough reforms with tough penalties for violations. I also believe it will give evidence to the American people that Congress can make significant reforms for members of Congress," LaHood e-mailed a reporter after Wednesday's vote.

In January, LaHood halted the practice of using lobbyists to sponsor fund-raisers for him. He also secured earmarks for some of the clients of those lobbyists. LaHood denied there was any quid pro quo.

In addition to LaHood, Reps. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, and John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who represents part of Springfield, voted for the bill. Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, who is ill with Parkinson's disease, didn't vote.

"While far from perfect, this legislation is certainly an advancement," Weller said in a statement issued by his office. "It provides greater transparency, which I've always said is the best way to go about addressing ethics concerns of any sort."

"We have to remember that a number of bad guys from both political parties have been caught and are going to jail under laws which are already on the books, and also that those men represent a very small percentage of the people who come here to serve the voters," Weller said.

Shimkus also said he supports increased transparency, but he had reservations about the other provisions in the bill.

"I just don't think you can legislate morality," Shimkus said in an interview. "When people decide not to comply with the law, it doesn't matter what the law is. I'm not real hyped on this."

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert@copleydc.com.